A slightly different version of this originally ran at The Princess Free Zone. Republished here with permission.
There is a lot to be said about Ruth Padawer’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine which asks the question “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear a Dress?” As gender related topics often do, it has sparked some debate with several blog posts about it, not to mention almost 900 comments on the site.
I agree to an extent with the sentiment that boys can seemingly have it rougher when crossing gender boundaries in some ways, and often face more intense scrutiny as well as taunting and bullying. There is definitely more of a stigma for boys who want to dress as girls than girls who dress as boys, but Padawer never questions why it might be so awful for boys in terms of wanting to be like a girl in the first place, or what that says about how society views females in general. She cites statistics that “boys are up to seven times as likely as girls to be referred to gender clinics for psychological evaluations. Sometimes the boys’ violation is as mild as wanting a Barbie for Christmas. By comparison, most girls referred to gender clinics are far more extreme in their atypicality: They want boy names, boy pronouns and, sometimes, boy bodies.” What that tells me is that while there may be a longer tolerance fuse for girls, both sexes are viewed as needing therapy for crossing gender boundaries.
As a parent, I understand the amount of energy and thought that goes along with allowing a gender nonconforming child to explore and discover their own unique identity. It is not an easy thing to allow your child to be perceived as different no matter how much you believe the underpinnings of those perceptions are wrong. However, I can personally attest to the fact that it is no less difficult for the parent of a girl than a boy, and I know there are others who would say the same. Case in point, there was an article in the Washington Post recently called “Transgender at Five” that focused on a little girl who wanted to be a boy and, much like the New York Times piece, delved into the agonizing process her parents went through in deciding to let her be who she was. Unlike Padawer’s piece, the Washington Post article by Petula Dvorak never discusses the issue in terms of girls versus boy, and never separates girls from boys in this way.
It would be one thing if Padawer’s article had focused solely on boys with specific examples as the main crux of the piece without discussing girls; instead, she seems to intentionally downplay the female side of this very nuanced and complex situation saying things like, “No one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider Man T-shirt.” This is just not true. By flippantly casting girls aside in this manner, she is essentially saying we need not worry about these types of girls who are at risk of being bullied or alienated because the world simply accepts them without question. I would love nothing more than to sit down with Padawer and explain how and why this is not a matter of “boys having it worse,” but how gender variance is a very real thing for both sexes.
I have had my own journey to acceptance with regards to my daughter and it has been nothing to brush-off as simply having a girl who is a tomboy. I have written about how it can be extremely exhausting to explain my decisions to those who think it’s an easy fix or who question why I let my daughter do things like get a buzz cut or dress primarily in boy clothing. And my daughter has been the target of looks, questioning, and, yes, bullying. While many are supportive and encouraging, I am often put on the defensive with regards to how I am raising my girl.
For those who have questioned my parenting skills, I usually try and explain that it has not always been so cut-and-dry for me or my husband and that we have struggled with the balance between protecting her from a critical outside world and letting her express her true self. When I talk to those who think I should be stricter about allowing her to be who she is, I say, “Don’t you think it would be easier for me, for everyone involved, if she would just conform?!” That’s the thing about conformity: It tends to make everyone comfortable. Of course it’s easier…but not better.
There are many who believe that this is an issue of just being the parent, and that being the parent means putting your foot down. “You can say no,” some say. Of course, we can say no, but at what cost? This is not about whether or not to let your child have dessert before dinner. Yes, as parents we do have to parent—we do have to make decisions that will keep our children safe and happy. But, as parents, sometimes we have to get past our own insecurities of what others will say and admit that fear of being judged is a big part of our discomfort. If your son or daughter wants to do something that is seemingly outside of standard gender boundaries, ask yourself what the real issue is. Is it that you are afraid of how it might be for your child? Or are you afraid of what it will look like to other adults who will question your choices? My daughter is not influenced by others and, at least right now, does not succumb to peer pressure—instead, she prefers to go her own way. For her that means wearing a tux to her violin recital and getting a buzz cut (neither of which hurt anyone). For her, it means making choices that mean something to her and her identity. I simply can’t take that away from her.
I hope that by going out into the world as her true self, she is showing others that all girls are not the same—that all children are not the same. If we ask our children to hide who they are, how will we, as a society, ever learn to accept those who do not?
Michele Yulo is the founder of Princess Free Zone, Inc., a brand and blog that offers an alternative to all things princess for little girls by addressing issues of gender and gender stereotyping. She is also the author of the children’s book “Super Tool Lula: The Bully-fighting Super Hero.” She has a master’s degree in English from Georgia State University and enjoys writing and enlightened discourse. You can visit her website at www.princessfreezone.com, join PFZ on Facebook, Twitter, or email her at michele@princessfreezone.